Lyn Romeo has said that adult social work is in a much stronger position following the introduction of the chief social worker role, to which she was appointed more than five years ago.
In an interview with Community Care, Romeo said adult social work had gone from strength to strength since her appointment in 2013, despite operating in a “challenging environment”, and listed a number of forward strides made by the profession in recent years.
Romeo said an increase in the number of adult social workers employed by local authorities had been one of the main triumphs.
English councils employed 7% more adult social workers in 2017-18 than 2016-17, according to NHS Digital’s annual snapshot of the adult social services workforce, which showed staff numbers had risen from 14,155 to 15,145 – the highest the figure has been since records began in 2011.
The increase in adult social workers also triggered a drop in the vacancy rate, which fell from 10% to 8.3%.
Contribution to legislation
Greater involvement from social workers in policymaking was another improvement noted by Romeo, citing the profession’s contribution to the independent review of the Mental Health Act, which was published last December.
She said the secondment of social workers to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had been in crucial in building a “strong presence”, and made reference to Mark Trewin, who helped to develop recommendations for the MHA review.
Trewin has been seconded from his role as mental health service manager at Bradford Council to become mental health social work lead at the DHSC.
Romeo described the implementation of the Care Act 2014 as a “big win”, stating that it had helped to bring about a “refocus on social work values”, particularly through the emphasis given to the principal social worker role in the Care Act statutory guidance.
Since the first adult PSWs were appointed in 2013, they have sought to provide practice leadership on social work across adults’ services departments, while providing a bridge between practitioners and senior managers in relation to practice and professional development.
In 2016, the Care Act statutory guidance was amended to say that local authorities should ensure PSWs are given the “credibility, authority and capacity” to provide effective leadership, and should maintain “close contact” with the director of adult social services.
Romeo said this had helped to guarantee the success of the role, with PSWs doing well to “firmly locate” practice leadership within adult social care.
She added that the role of adult PSWs had been more significant than that played by their colleagues in children’s social work.
“We may not have any social workers at senior management level within adult social care departments – directors of adult social services and adult directors may not come from a social work background – so the PSW role has been especially impactful in adult social care because it has really focused and ensured we have practice leadership with the adult social care departments.”
Benefits of PSW role
Romeo explained the presence of adult PSWs within local authorities had also helped to bring a social work voice to the table, leading to numerous benefits.
“PSWs have had a focus on ensuring a good continued professional development programme is in place and ensuring that issues around recruitment and retention are paid good attention… increasing, in many places, the proportion of qualified social workers in those departments.”
She also said PSWs’ contribution to the development of strengths-based practice. For example, the co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, Tricia Pereira, recently co-wrote a handbook on strengths-based practice, published by the DHSC in February.
“They’ve made a big contribution to putting in a more strengths-based approach, reducing a lot of the process-driven, transactional bureaucracy that social workers were often caught up in.
“Instead, they have helped social workers, once again, to focus much more on the citizen and the carer and looking more to communities, so that’s helped them reclaim social work and social work practice.”
The increased importance of PSWs within local authorities was evidenced recently, as it was agreed at the ADASS Spring Seminar that PSWs would be extended membership to the association.
Romeo also highlighted the fact that Pereira and her fellow co-chair, Beverley Latania, were invited to speak at two sessions during the seminar, which is an annual gathering for directors and other senior leaders in adult social care.
However, despite the impact of PSWs within local authorities, a section of Romeo’s annual report, published in March, acknowledged that the role was “too often combined with other functions”.
In 2017, a survey by Daisy Bogg Consultancy found 62% of PSWs were in “hybrid roles”, often carrying out their PSW duties alongside management tasks. Moreover, three-quarters of those working in this way said they had no more than two days per week to dedicate to PSW work.
Romeo said it was key that PSWs were able to find the “right balance” between roles to able to continue to be effective and bring change.
“It is important that PSWs are given enough time to perform their functions; sometimes that can mean giving the PSW some resources underneath them or have someone reporting to them, so they can do some of the more of the detailed work that is required to focus on reflective supervision or improving practice.”
“It’s about ensuring they have enough capacity to deliver the intentions.”
More work to do
Despite the progress made in strengthening the profession, Romeo identified areas for improvement, saying it was important that more research was conducted and that a stronger evidence base was built in order to design social work practice fit for the 21st century.
“[The sector] needs to get much more research mindedness and do more around social work effectiveness, for example, what works, what doesn’t work, stopping things that don’t work, making sure we’re really building on what people who use social work services.”
While a What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care has been set up – backed up with £23m from the Department for Education – to explore these questions in children’s social work, there has been no equivalent set up for adult social work.
However, DHSC commissioned a study from the James Lind Alliance to identify the top ten priorities for research in relation to adult social work, which was published in November 2018.
Since the report was published, DHSC has been working with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to turn the priorities into research proposals. Romeo said these would be announced next year.
Yet Romeo said it was not only social work academics who would be responsible for improving social work practice, adding that Social Work England, which is due to replace the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as the profession’s regulator later this year, would be a key player in shaping the future of the profession.
She strongly backed the creation of a bespoke regulator – as opposed to the HCPC, which covers multiple professions – saying it would bring a clear focus on the profession.
Social Work England recently consulted on its rules and standards, on registration, professional standards, social work education standards and fitness to practise, which set out proposed changes to the approach taken by the HCPC.
Avoiding long delays
Romeo said she hoped for a fresh approach to fitness to practise, which was “modern and facilitating”, with concerns dealt with in a much more “timely and appropriate way”, so that people weren’t left waiting for “long periods” to receive decisions.
According to figures published in the HCPC Fitness to Practise Annual Report 2018, the average time for cases to proceed from the receipt stage of a concern to the final hearing had increased from 16 to 21 months over the previous four years.
Although all professions covered by the HCPC were included in this calculation, social workers made up half of the fitness to practice concerns received by the HCPC in 2017-18.
Social Work England has said it wanted to avoid unnecessary hearings by giving independent case examiners the power to resolves cases without a hearing where the practitioner accepted the concerns and demonstrated that they had taken measures to improve their practice.
Examiners would be given the power to issue sanctions up to and including a suspension with the consent of the social worker concerned, but would not be able to remove people from the register; something that could only be carried out by panels of adjudicators following a hearing.
Practitioners have also raised concerns that the pressures and context of social work – including high caseloads and lack of management support- have not been sufficiently taken into account in HCPC decision making, and Romeo said she wanted to see this addressed by Social Work England.
“It’s about ensuring that employers have done what they need to do, it’s about understanding social workers and what the context is and the concerns about them, and dealing with them as promptly as possible”.
No concerns about SWE board
Attention had been drawn in recent weeks to the lack of registered social workers on the incoming regulator’s board, with critics saying the profession would not be around the table when decisions were made.
At present, chief executive Colum Conway is the only registered social worker on the board, though chair of the board Lord Patel is a qualified social worker. The rest of the board includes a finance professional, two NHS trust chairs and two people with a background in professional regulation.
Romeo said she understood why some people were disappointed by the lack of social work registrants on the board, but said the regulator had made efforts to include the views of the front line.
“[Board members] are there to govern the body to make sure that it is run well. However, the actual standards and consultations on the standards and the development of them and applying them is for the wider sector to be involved in, with the regulator.”
She added that there was also an advisory group, composed of “key social work leaders and practitioners”, that had been helping to capture the thoughts and opinions of frontline practitioners.